Israel’s New Government: New Faces, Same Policies?
Yoram Peri, Director of the Joseph B. and Alma Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies and Abraham S. and Jack Kay Chair in Israel Studies at the University of Maryland, discussed five myths widely held about Israel’s new government.
On April 12, the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted a meeting, “Israel’s New Government: New Faces, Same Policies?” with Yoram Peri. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, moderated the event.
Peri discussed five myths that people have held about Israel’s January elections. The first of these was the belief prior to elections that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition would gain a large number of seats in the Knesset. Although polls predicted the right wing would gain even more power, ultimately, the bloc lost seats. Peri also stated that the right and left coalitions in Israel gained very similar numbers of votes in elections, but leftist parties tend to be more fractured and lack strong leadership, making them less likely to garner enough votes per party to meet the minimum two percent threshold for party membership in the Knesset.
Second, Peri discounted the myth that the relative success of Yesh Atid—a party founded in 2012 aiming to represent the secular middle class—in parliamentary elections reflected a shift toward the center in Israeli politics. He cited other centrist parties in Israeli political history, noting that none of them ever last long. However, he noted that although the overall structure of the Israeli right and left did not change, the balance of power within the right did change dramatically, with many moderates not winning reelection. The Knesset now sees the highest ever membership from settlers and religious members.
Third, Peri argued that despite popular belief Israeli youth are in fact politically organized. The rise of representation of Yesh Atid and Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party is in part the result of youth looking for new leaders and ignoring old party lines. Peri discussed the summer 2011 Israeli protests over high costs of living and a growing social media focus on domestic issues as the drivers of a shift to voting on social and economic issues. The growing power of youth in politics is reflected in the higher numbers of journalists and women in the Knesset and the rising rates of youth participation in elections. Peri identified youth as the “fourth generation of Israeli leaders,” after the “founding fathers,” the “Sabra generation,” and the “1967 generation.”
Fourth, Peri said that the idea that Netanyahu’s formation of a coalition with the ultra-orthodox will make his party weaker is also a myth. Although Likud did lose seats in January, Netanyahu is “as strong as ever,” having shifted the composition of the cabinet to the right. Right wing parties are vastly overrepresented in the Cabinet, he said, while leftist parties are similarly underrepresented, despite having gained a slight edge in parliament. Furthermore, the leftist politicians who are in the cabinet are assigned to social and economic positions; posts concerning defense, security, and foreign affairs are held strongly by rightist politicians, indicating that little will change in policy on these fronts.
Finally, Peri treated the assumption “that the religious parties have lost power in elections” as false. He divided the religious parties into two wings: the ultra-orthodox, who oppose both Zionism and technological advancement, and the national-religious, who are secular Zionists in favor of modernity. Although overall religious parties lost several seats in the Knesset, this has been mainly at the expense of the ultra-orthodox—the secular Zionists have become stronger via Bennett, particularly in the cabinet.
By Laura Rostad, Middle East Program
Please see Yoram Peri's paper below based on this presentation.